Low Light Levels and Wide-Open Lenses: the 80s/90s Look

Faster cameras means extreme low level lighting here to stay. Here are some examples from the days of (gasp) 400 ASA film!

There's something amazing about shooting low light images with a wide open lens. Now that the average camera is rated at 800 or faster, we can take advantage of using smaller and smaller lights and even shoot scenes that look brighter on the monitor than they do by eye…

An example of low light/low contrast lighting from Mystery Train, shot by Robby Muller.

One of my mentors assisted the great cinematographer Robby Muller. He loved to tell stories about the difficulties he had pulling focus on Muller's movies: “Robby shoots night exteriors at T1.3. He shoots night interiors at T1.4. And he shoots day interiors at T1.6!” In spite of that he raved about what an honor it was to work with Robby and how he learned a tremendous amount that influenced his own lighting style.

Around the same time, when I was also an assistant, I worked as second assistant on a film called Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. It was my first “big” feature, and it was shot by James Carter, ASC. While I can't recommend watching the film based on its content, the lighting is absolutely phenomenal. It's one of the best looking films I've worked on, and I wish I'd taken notes as to what Jim was doing during the shoot. (As a second assistant I was kept quite busy doing other things.)

Carter's lighting style seemed similar to Muller's in that they both shot at very wide T-stops. I remember that a normal T-stop on Leatherface was T2 at 400 ASA and the lighting levels were very, very low. Entire sets were lit with a couple of Kino Flos, and the fill light was often a single Kino tube rigged on a C-stand under the lens.

Shooting wide open does interesting things to an image. Most lenses that open up to T1.4 are noticeably softer than they are at T2, so that has some impact on the look; but the more interesting effect is that using the entire lens–all the glass from edge to edge, rather than stopping down and only using the center–results in a lower contrast image due to light bouncing around the inside of the lens (internal flare). This may be less true of modern lenses, but it was certainly true of the lenses in use in the late 80s/early 90s (either Zeiss Super Speeds, Panavised Super Speeds or Panavision Primos.)

The thing I heard people say the most about this style of shooting is that the light seems to “fill itself in.” This may be partially due to the lower contrast of a wide open Zeiss Super Speed but it may also be due to the style of lighting most often used in this kind of shooting, which typically involved using almost nothing but Kino Flos on a set.

One of the advantages to lighting at such low light levels is that what the eye sees is often very close to what the film sees. At higher light levels the eye is easily fooled. I remember hearing about some tests shot for a feature film where the director wanted everything shot at T16 for depth of field. (The DP managed to talk him down to T11.) The DP and gaffer attempted to fill by eye at those light levels but the test results showed the fill level as almost non-existent. The appropriate amount of fill can only be judged by meter at high light levels as the ratio of key to fill looks less by eye than it really is, but at very low light levels what you see is very close to what you get. This holds true for both film and HD and can be handy to know when pre-lighting a set.

It's also simpler to do what I call “volumetric lighting” at low light levels. In this style of lighting the “shape” of the light comes from proximity to the light: as an actor walks through a space they are lit by light bouncing off a tabletop, and then by a practical light source, and finally they stop in a doorway where they are lit by soft light from the next room. In each case the light isn't projecting into the scene, but instead it is radiating through space in such a way that you can feel it interact with people as they move past the source. Hard light has a certain character to it that can be very attractive but it doesn't necessarily define space, other than through highlight and shadow, because you don't know where the actor is in relation to the light. If an actor is lit by bounce light off a table then we get a sense of where the actor is in space relative to the table, because as soon as they walk away from the table the bounce light fades away.

Bounced lights, Kino Flos and China balls all display this characteristic to some extent. Bounced fill at a distance can appear invisible, like ambient light, but light bounced off an object in a scene defines the space around that object.

Another aspect of this style is that it tends to be low contrast, and yet moody, at the same time. The low contrast comes from the fact that using multiple soft sources creates a base level of fill unless they are all flagged very carefully, and this can be helpful if you're the type of DP who likes to set the fill level once and then augment the talent lighting with accents wherever they stop and deliver a line. The fill light is often the hardest light to place, so if you can find a spot to put it that covers the set then all you have to do from setup to setup is add a little “pop” to the actor that's appropriate for the mood and where they're standing on the set.

I suspect that this style of lighting is going to come back into vogue simply because modern cameras are getting to be so fast that we can light with very small and very soft sources again. At ISO 800 I can light an interior so dimly that the monitor looks brighter than the scene does by eye. That's when some wonderful things can happen, both because I can work quickly with smaller light sources but also because practicals in the frame actually do cool things to the people and the set. At the same time I can keep my T-stop at 2.8 or so, because shooting at a wider stop than that is just cruel to a focus puller.

Here's the trailer for a movie that's a great example of this style: Mystery Train, shot by Robby Muller:

What I love is the delicacy of the lighting: it's soft and feels very natural, but there's a richness to it as well. Even though some of the environments are “well lit” in the sense that there is light everywhere in the set there's still contrast, usually in the form of color or black in the blackground, that helps define and give shape to people and objects.

Here's a clip from another Muller film, To Live and Die in LA (warning: violent content):

One thing I notice in these scenes is that the mood is set by using key and fill lights that are underexposed, so that while the sets are clearly visible they appear as they would by eye in a dimly-lit room. Try this out yourself: turn on a couple of table lamps in an otherwise dark room and notice how the environment feels dim even though there's almost nowhere, except under furniture, that your eye sees a true black shadow. It's possible to light an environment overall for action but still retain a feeling of mystery through the subtle use of color and underexposure. A lot of Muller's work looks much the way the eye would see it if you were standing in the room with the actors, except that the placement of the lights and their color makes the environment look a lot better than it would in actuality.

Also notice how you almost always feel where the light sources are in relation to people and things, whether it's from built-in set lighting or the headlights of a car sweeping across the wall of a garage as it pulls into a parking spot. Even the overhead fill lights are placed in such a way that you can feel when people are moving toward them or away from them.

Notice how important art direction is in all these clips. Lighting becomes a lot easier if you have something to light. The worst feeling in the world is to walk into a set and see white walls, no windows and no set dressing. Dark walls are always better because you can make them brighter a lot easier than you can make them darker, and the more objects on the set the more texture there'll be–and our eyes love texture.

This last example is from Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, shot by James Carter, ASC, and I include it not only because I think the lighting is beautiful, and because I worked on the film, but because they left some of the slates in and I'm the one slating. (That was quite a trip: watching a clip looking for lighting examples and hearing my voice from 24 years ago!) The kitchen is a great example of lighting an environment not just for mood but for speed, as I don't remember the crew doing a lot of relighting for each setup other than moving a fill light (a single Kino Flo tube) around. There was probably more reseting than that but for the most part we shot in that space without a lot of tweaking once the main lighting was up.

WARNING: This is really disturbing stuff, especially as this clip contains scenes deleted from the film in order for it to get an “R” rating instead of “X”. Don't watch if you have a weak stomach.

(The sequence with the little girl running in at 5:45 and yelling “Stop, stop!” seemed like a little moment of sanity during rehearsal… until her next line, when the entire set went dead silent and we all looked at each other with the unspoken thought, “That's really messed up.”)

The funny thing is that the director is one of the nicest guys I've ever met.


Art Adams | Director of Photography | 01/17/2012 | www.artadamsdp.com

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Art Adams is a cinema lens specialist at ARRI, Inc. Before that, he was a freelance cinematographer for 26 years. You can see his work at http://www.artadamsdp.com. Art has been published in HD Video Pro,…

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Art, great write up. Always appreciate your appreciation and sensitivity of the moving image. Too bad the videos have been taken down off of Youtube. Isn’t there some kind of free use license for educational purposes?? Would love to see those clips reposted again somehow.

Misha Mazor